UNDER THE SKIN (2014)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Adam Pearson, Michael Moreland
MPAA Rating: (for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language)
Running Time: 1:47
Release Date: 4/4/14 (limited); 4/11/14 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 10, 2014
That is what she does. The stuff we usually hold as the foundation of establishing a character is irrelevant here. She doesn't even have a name. It's unimportant who she is. Of only slightly more importance is what she is, and that is a question here. It's answered more or less in the final scene of Under the Skin—more because we see her for what she is and less because the revelation only raises more questions. It's best to define her by her job—her task.
In her van and with no destination, she navigates city streets and country roads throughout Scotland. The camera is just as interested in her behind the wheel as it is in her point of view. While driving, she and the camera are watching people. The shots are static at first—just groups of people going about their daily routines. That's only part of it, though. For the acts of driving and looking are only the means to an end.
Quite quickly, we start to notice that the camera isn't just observing a group of people, and it's overlooking an entire segment of the population. As the van passes certain folks walking down the sidewalk or crossing the street, the camera will hold on them, panning with their course. All of these targets are men.
When she spots a solitary man going about his business with no one else in the vicinity, she stops the van alongside him. The conversations always start the same way—asking for directions. They're vague queries—how to get to this or that motorway. The men are more than happy to help, and a lot of that probably has to do with the fact that she is played by Scarlett Johansson, who has the visage and physicality of the idealized female form from a Renaissance painting. Her performance is in how she maintains her face to appear that she hasn't stepped off the canvas.
From the film's start with a strange prelude of mechanical sounds and images of shapes, it is clear there's a scheme in motion here. The character is dressed in the clothes of another woman who may or may not have been a prostitute. In a wide-open, white space, the body of the woman sheds a tear after the clothes have been taken from her body. The character expresses nothing. As far as we can tell, she's an empty vessel on an emotional level; it's the work at hand that defines not only her appearance but also her very essence. Everything about her seems to have been planned with the aim of making her as physically alluring to men as possible
There's a beautiful woman who happens to be lost, and of all the people she could have asked for help, she has selected, in the mark's mind, him. It's something of a fantasy, especially for the men with whom she chooses to take the roadside conversation to the next level. They're alone. They aren't going anywhere specific where people would expect them. They don't have anyone waiting for them at home. If they disappeared off the face of the planet, it might take a while for anyone to notice that they're missing.
Once the game has been played, it's only a matter of getting these men into a building—a series of dilapidated residencies—with the promise of sex. They are only slightly hesitant—if at all—to enter, and any misgivings they might have are eased as she starts to undress. They don't even notice that they're walking through a pitch-black room where it's impossible to see the boundaries. They walk toward her and—depending on the man, either keeping up with her or setting the pace—strip along the way.
At this point in detailing her job, it's useless and unnecessary to continue. One can surely tell where this is leading, and the specifics don't exactly help explain a lot of questions that arise from it. What's important is the atmosphere writer/director Jonathan Glazer (adapting a novel by Michel Faber) establishes to complement the central character—troubling for reasons of which we're gradually made more aware, detachedly curious, and increasingly enclosing as the extent of the bigger picture we're let in on becomes clearer.
The film is an exercise in mood, tone, and routine. The protagonist's process repeats itself over and over again, and each time it unveils some new facet of the plan until we're simultaneously certain of and baffled by the whole thing.
The structure of routine, especially in when and how the screenplay disrupts the habits of the story, is vital to breaking down the film's purpose. There's a particularly haunting scene on a beach where the main character finds a diver from another country—a perfect target. Across the way from them is a family of three and their dog. The dog gets caught in the undertow, and soon enough, everyone, save for her and the baby, are out in the water to try to save each other. She watches without emotion, and after nature has worked its course, she's immediately back to her mission.
When she hears about the missing family later while driving in the van, we might just see some kind of recognition, and soon after, the film begins to demolish its custom. Under the Skin then takes its time with her encounters with three very different men—one as lost as she is, another as manipulative as she is, and the last as despicable as a person can be. The woman at the start of the film becomes a very different being than the one we've known—even before the film's big reveal in the last scene. She grows; humanity does not.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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